Laughing Stock – one of the most enigmatic, chameleonic albums to have ever received the label of “rock”. Where do you even begin? This is an album that defies genre, defies classification, refuses to sit still, never fails to mystify. It’s a deeply introspective listening experience, one that operates on an unfamiliar, ephemeral logic, and draws lines between disparate musical styles and sounds ranging from art rock to jazz, ambient, and gospel. It is often championed as one of the precursors to post-rock, and yet, in many ways, it is the complete antithesis of the genre it helped to spawn. It is an album of subtle tonal evolution, the slightest changes in its ever-shifting mass of mood and instrumentation demanding the closest attention. Laughing Stock is, in short, not an easy album to write about.
Its history is no less baffling, and offers no point of entry for understanding the contents of the album itself. Talk Talk started out in the 80s as a synth-pop band, their music full of unadulterated cheese: in the video for their 1984 single “Dum Dum Girl”, frontman and lead songwriter Mark Hollis sings earnestly into the camera wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket, while another panning shot catches his gloriously mulleted hair in full swish. And yet, a bit later in the video, he breaks into laughter and says, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “I feel like a member of Pink Floooyd“. Hollis’ ability to fluctuate between taking himself intensely seriously and bordering on self-parody was bewildering, and it made you wonder if he wasn’t engaging in some great elaborate joke for the sole purpose of making Laughing Stock even more impenetrable.
Impenetrable is certainly a word that could be applied to the albums opener, “Myrrhman”, a track full of disorientatingly empty space in which scraps of minimal instrumentation tentatively ebb and flow across the mix, refusing to be drawn into anything resembling song structure. Staccato guitar chords ring out with clinical clarity, and winding strings circle a handful of plaintive piano notes. We’re first introduced to Mark Hollis’ breathy croon, reduced almost to a whisper, and full of largely indecipherable lyrics. The few phrases we do catch come from some mystical, magical place: “I tred the pendants beneath my feet”, “Blessed love, the love I’ve seen”. For the most part, however, Hollis’ singing here, as on the rest of Laughing Stock, resists understanding entirely. His voice, conveying more tone than actual language, becomes an expressive mass of nasally syllables and long vowels that seems always to be dripping in a rusty Americana, far removed from his native London accent. If Hollis’ words are obscured, however, the minute sonic detail of “Myrrhman” is crystal clear. From the warm hiss of the tape always audible in the background, to the way every sound seems to hang in the air as it reverberates in the foreground, the track feels meticulously constructed at every turn.
And yet the track, like Laughing Stock as a whole, is an entirely spontaneous creation. Plucked and pieced together from hours upon hours of improvised recordings by a huge ensemble of musicians, Laughing Stock was an album that seemed, even to those involved in creating it, to have appeared out of nowhere. Engineer Phil Brown described it as being “recorded by chance, accident, and hours of trying every possible overdub idea “. This improvisational element can be heard most acutely in the other two tracks that make up the albums first half, “Ascension Day” and “After The Flood”. Here more than anywhere Talk Talk reach into the realm of jazz, their steady, loose percussion and wandering bass holding together their explorations into climactic rock and melancholy gospel. The first of the two, “Ascension Day”, is the only track here that contains something that could be likened to a chorus, as a handful of plucked guitar notes erupt into a sharp, clanging refrain that constantly threatens to explode into a climactic crescendo, but always recedes back into itself. When it finally does explode, the thrill is short lived – the track cuts out to silence precisely at the six minute mark, with disorientating and exhilarating effect. You can practically hear the tape being sliced, hear the uninterrupted ten minute jam that was brutally excised in the editing process.
“After The Flood”, then, is appropriately named. The track opens, suddenly, in the aftermath of a confusing and chaotic jam, into a space of quiet, reverential calm. Deep, aquatic synths resonate across both channels, while the same hypnotising jazz percussion clicks and turns behind a wailing church organ to achingly beautiful effect. The feeling here is one akin to that of coming up for air after a long period underwater, or stepping out of the rain into an empty home : breathless, peaceful, and intensely calm. “After The Flood” also demonstrates Talk Talk’s control of tone and inflection at its most potent – the track shifts seamlessly through cautious optimism, nervous tension and deep melancholy with the subtlest changes in key. “Taphead”, which follows, takes this control over tone into a much darker, more foreboding place. The recording here is sparse and physical, opening onto nothing more than Hollis and a lonely electric guitar. His every sound, every movement of his fingers along the fretboard, rings out in complete silence. You can picture him vividly, alone, in a dark room, whispering into a microphone. But as the track moves, ominous strings creep into the mix, and as he continues to croon, his vocals become drowned in dissonant horns and brass. The effect is chilling, and evidence that Talk Talk weren’t afraid to explore tension without release in their music.
If “New Grass” does away with this tension entirely, substituting instead for bright, primary colours and emotive piano and guitar refrains, then closer “Runeii” creates a new kind of tension – that between sound and silence. Consisting of almost nothing but Hollis, an electric guitar, and tape hiss, the track winds its way down some lonely desert road for five spellbinding minutes, while Hollis delivers his most earnest, mournful vocal delivery yet. But his guitar is perhaps more expressive than even he is. Rarely has an electric guitar sounded so lonely, and Hollis raises the instrument to an almost spiritual level of hushed reverence here.
‘Hushed reverence’ just about sums up Laughing Stock, both in its tone and in the reactions it inspires from its listeners. This is an album shrouded in religious mysticism and experimental sensibility – and yet, for all its obtuseness, it resonates deeply and immediately. Few albums have acquired such mystery and mythology around them as this, but Laughing Stock’s real power is in the way it cuts through it all with the incredible physicality and clarity of the music contained within it. For those willing to take the journey, Talk Talk’s magnum opus is a paradoxical and endlessly engaging box of secrets, a revelation with every listen.